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It is perhaps the world’s foremost celebration of the imperfection of man and the structures he builds. The Leaning Tower of Pisa is famous because it is flawed. Thousands flock to the Italian region of Tuscany every year to photograph and climb the leaning tower and it is that climb that intrigues me most.
The marble steps show severe wear from hundreds of years of climbing. Each shaky human step is insufficient on its own, but when added to the hundreds, the thousands, the millions of steps taken by the tower’s visitors, change is visible.
I’ve been thinking about those worn marble steps in the days since George Floyd was murdered and whether a nation that watched him die will have the endurance to sustain our sadness, the discipline to contain our rage, and the strength of our conviction to show our children the malleability of marble, in real time. I wonder if we can, in the words of Martin Luther King Jr., effect real change in man’s heart “with the fierce urgency of now.”
And as a father I know that there is so much more that I need to do.
My wife and I do our best to raise our three children right. Responsible and humble with grace and kindness, all three are on the path to being good citizens. The conversations we have in private about race or otherwise wouldn’t cause shame or embarrassment to us if broadcast in the public square. But Floyd’s murder has me questioning whether that’s nearly enough, whether the inadequacy of doing and saying the right things – but not always the necessary things – has robbed my children of something more important. Maybe they need to be challenged; maybe they need to see how uncomfortable things can be in this world, outside of the climate of inclusion we’ve created through years of meaningful discussions around our kitchen table. They know they have shelter and food and things that others don’t – including the inarguable privilege of being born white. But is knowing enough?
Until Floyd’s murder, I thought I was sufficiently climbing. In late summer of 2016, I wrote an article defending Colin Kaepernick’s decision to sit, and to later kneel, during the national anthem prior to NFL games. I was rather proud of myself for doing so. I cringe now looking back at that post – not for defending Kaepernick, but for not having the slightest understanding as to why he was compelled to kneel in the first place. I was stuck in the pristine marble of thought that all lives matter and support the troops and all the silly red, white, and blue noise in the moment that prevented me from simply admitting that yes, Black Lives Matter. That’s all it was and that’s all it is. Why was that so hard for me to say? Black Lives Matter.
And I avoided Ta-Nehisi Coates’ masterpiece “My President was Black” in The Atlantic for several months in early 2017, in part because I wasn’t a supporter of President Obama and in part because I was intimidated by Coates’ elegant way of slapping me hard across the face with beautiful, powerful words. I hesitated because I had been sufficiently preconditioned to be afraid of his truth.
Finally, in the spring, I gave in. I found a quiet place and read it. As expected, the slaps were relentless — but I had no idea how profoundly the piece would impact me. Coates’ words stung me, challenged me, inspired me.
Obama was born into a country where laws barring his very conception – let alone his ascendancy to the presidency – had long stood in force. A black president would always be a contradiction for a government that, throughout most of its history, had oppressed black people. The attempt to resolve this contradiction through Obama – a black man with deep roots in the white world – was remarkable. The price it exacted, incredible. The world it gave way to, unthinkable.
I didn’t vote for President Obama in 2008 or 2012 and have written critically of him. However, in April 2008, I took my daughter to downtown San Antonio to see the future president speak. She was 7 at the time, and I wanted her to experience history. By that point it was evident that he would likely ascend to the presidency and I wanted her to have that memory. I hoisted her onto my shoulders so she could see and hear him clearly.
But I felt a strange disconnect from him as he spoke, almost as if we were two ships passing in the night. He was rowing in a completely different direction than me. I blamed him for it; I held it against him; I resented him. Reading Coates compelled me to reassess. Maybe it wasn’t him, maybe it was me. However uncomfortable that is to admit, it was me.
Then, last summer I read Coates’ Between the World and Me and was pummeled again by his words. I could feel his love for his son and his Mecca. But so much of what he wrote was impossible for me to fully identify with.
The birth of a better world is not ultimately up to you, though I know, each day, there are grown and women who will tell you otherwise. The world needs saving precisely because of the actions of these same men and women. I am not a cynic. I love you, and I love the world, and I love it more with every new inch I discover. But you are a black boy, and you must be responsible for your body in a way that other boys cannot know. Indeed, you must be responsible for the worst actions of other black bodies, which, somehow, will always be assigned to you. And you must be responsible for the bodies of the powerful – the policeman who cracks you with a nightstick will quickly find his excuse in your furtive movements. And this is not reducible to just you – the women around you must be responsible for their bodies in a way that you never will know. You have to make your peace with the chaos, but you cannot lie. You cannot forget how much they took from us and they transfigured our very bodies into sugar, tobacco, cotton, and gold.
It was perhaps the most uncomfortable I’ve ever been reading a book and it should be required reading in schools. And though I am unable to grasp the world in which Coates resides, it is desperately important for me to know of it.
Antonio Lee is one of those guys that’s never met a stranger and whose smile lights up the room. Our families lived in the same neighborhood for years and his sister and my daughter played basketball together at Brandeis High School. Antonio is one of the Black Lives Matter activists organizing and pressing for change in our community and across the world. I don’t know Antonio well but have always admired his poise and envied his charisma. I reached out to him a few days ago to see how he’s doing and to ask what I could do to help. “March, donate water, snacks, monetize black-owned businesses, or donate to one of several funds,” he said. “There’s a lot of diversity out there. It’s beautiful to see people who don’t have to be there, out there.”
Later he sent me a picture of a white man holding a sign with an American flag that said “As a white man I can never walk a mile in a black man’s shoes, but I can lace mine up, walk beside him and say ‘I stand with you.’” Antonio said the picture speaks a thousand words and then wished my family well.
In a strange way, it felt like I was seeking his permission to be outraged, and maybe I am. The pain I feel for Antonio and for Ta-Nehisi Coates and for his son and for all who have suffered is real, but it just feels so inadequate.
That feeling has been the overwhelming emotion inside me since Floyd was murdered. Conversations with my daughter have helped. She’s 18 now and gives me strength. Her depth of understanding of the problems we face dwarfs mine. She knows my metaphorical style and pushes me to focus more on the blunt simplicity of right and wrong. In the circle of life, she is hoisting me on her shoulders now, just as I did for her 12 years ago so she could get a clear look at our first black president.
And sometimes when seeking difficult answers, I write. Not with the majesty and flourish of Ta-Nehisi Coates, but I write. I turn on Sturgill Simpson and Outkast, open my laptop and try to string together enough words to help me find hope in the awfulness of it all. So in addition to the advice Antonio gave me, maybe writing this is how I can make a difference – by sharing not only what I’m proud of but also sharing what makes me uncomfortable; by admitting that just like that leaning tower in Italy, I’m flawed; by admitting it’s not good enough to oppose racism, it is necessary to be virulently anti-racist. It is my duty as a father. I know that now.
Yesterday, my family and I ventured outside our suburban neighborhood and drove into the heart of San Antonio. We’ve been faithfully quarantined since early April, so getting out felt good. Along the way, I thought of some morsel of wisdom I wanted to share with the kids but paused when I looked up at them in the rearview mirror. All three were looking out the window, watching the world. I wondered if they understood the difference they could make out there. I wondered if they would help educate the ignorant. I wondered if they would have the courage that I lacked for so long to be shining beacons for real change. As their father, there is so much more that I need to do.
This commentary was originally published on Medium.